The N.Y. Times suggests “hidden-city ticketing” — 4 problems they didn’t mention

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As a travel agent for many years, I’ve tried every trick I could think of to save clients money. In the “good old days,” before airlines really got their revenue management departments together, many agents cheerfully issued a whole lot of tickets in ways that challenged airline rules. This weekend the New York Times wrote about one, but didn’t explain the potential problems.

Here are some examples of ticketing tricks that sometimes work.

    • “Throwaway” tickets – not using the return when a round-trip ticket was cheaper
    • “Back to back” ticketing – when a client is traveling to the same city twice but not staying over the weekend, issuing one round-trip ticket for the first and last flight, and another round-trip ticket for the middle flights (used mostly when Saturday -night stays were far more prevalent)
    • “hidden city” ticketing – booking a ticket to a city beyond the destination to get a cheaper fare and getting off the flight at an interim stop.

Last weekend, the New York Times actually did an article in their Sunday magazine suggesting “hidden-city” ticketing. While I have a great deal of respect for the so-called “Paper of Record,” they left out more than a few potential consequences.

Here’s the basic idea — Sometimes a flight between hub cities can be very expensive, whereas a connecting flight beyond can be a lot less. Take for example, a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Dallas on American. For one sample date in July, the lowest one-way fare is $629, where a connection to Tampa is $205. So, the suggested strategy in the article is to buy a ticket to Tampa and just “miss” your connection — Get off the flight in Dallas.

To be fair, the Times does point out several considerations — bring only carry-on luggage and it sometimes requires two separate tickets for round-trip flights, since the airlines will cancel your return reservations if you don’t show up for a flight. But, other than that, the article makes it sound pretty easy.

Here are a few things, however, that were left out.

1. If you have frequent flier mileage, and get mileage on the trip, the airline has am easy record of your flights and tickets. When an airline asks for your mileage number as part of the phone procedure to get you to the “right” agent, it allows the reservation agent to see all of your bookings.

If the airline sees a no-show on a flight, they might ignore it; but if they see more than one, they could well flag it for fraud. While they may not have legal recourse to get the money back from travelers, they can, and will, penalize travelers by taking frequent flier miles.

2. Since flights are so full these days, often overhead bins fill up. If you don’t have priority boarding or a seat in one of the first boarding zone, there’s always a chance the overhead bins will fill. In that case, the airline will “gate-check” your bag, without charge. If this happens, they will NOT just check it to a connecting point. While you might be planning to get off the plane in Dallas, your bag could end up in Tampa.

3. Similarly, if a flight is canceled, the airline may automatically rebook you on an alternative; it could be with a different connecting city. Try explaining to an airline agent while you absolutely MUST connect through your original city. Especially with a long line of people at customer service.

(Plus, see #2 — If you are rebooked onto another flight, it’s likely to be without a seat assignment, meaning the chances increase of being part of those late boarding groups that may have to gate-check luggage.)

4. Travel agents probably won’t do this for you. While an airline doesn’t have an easy way to charge passengers for breaking tariff rules, they have a very easy way to bill travel agents called “debit memos.” Airlines LOVE collecting money using these kinds of memos. If an airline sends a bill to an agent there are two choices, pay it, or forfeit the right to book that airline’s tickets in future.

Some travelers may still decide that hidden-city ticketing is worth the risk, and certainly that’s their right. But, just because a New York Times reporter thinks it’s a good idea, you have to think carefully if it’s a good idea for you personally.

  • Anonymous

    I know that Delta sued a woman in Florida and settled out of court. She had a history of ticketing to a hidden city and doing throw away tickets. In the filing the airline maintained that she had defrauded them by doing this and they sought something like $30,000.00, plus they wiped out her miles, status and banned her from ever having another mileage account with Delta.

  • JAH

    Does the airline really have any recourse for the back-to-back ticketing scenario?

    If you’ve booked legitimate flights and plan on flying all of them is it really that bad?

    The analogy I’ve used in the past to (possibly) justify this is if I am working in London for two weeks and want to take a side trip to Rome for the weekend in between what is wrong with that?

  • Sam

    The proper and safe way to do a “back to back” ticket is by using two airlines, preferably not of one alliance.

  • Deb

    Janice, I couldn’t have said it any better myself. As an agent in the past who has had to pay her fair share of debit memos, I will no longer book “hidden city” tickets for clients. And to all you people out there that think this is a good idea, think again. I have had quite a few clients whose mileage accounts were wiped clean by an airline for booking tickets this way. Some repeat offenders were even told they could no longer fly on said airline.They have special tracking software now that checks every single flight and compares to see if all are legit. This is really no joke.

  • DaveS

    Seems like the thing to do is simply not give your frequent flyer number when booking that way, and be sure your carry on fits under the seat in front of you. There is still the slight risk of rerouting, the extent of which depends on that airline’s system.

  • Joelw

    Then there are the savvy (and sneaky) clients who have called me to issue a hidden city ticket wihtout telling me what they were up to, even though I was pretty certain I knew. This is tricky for a travel agent because you can either refuse to issue the ticket, thus risking the loss of a client, or you can issue the ticket and risk getting a debit memo from the airline which may not be receptive to a claim of ignorance.

  • DaveS

    But how can they possibly know that you missed your flight on purpose, as opposed to one of dozens of other reasons you might miss it? I have a friend who missed a connecting flight recently because she was too engrossed in her email and lost track of time. So the airline would go after her for fraud? How and why?

  • janice

    Dave, in that case you could easily show a receipt for whatever other ticket you bought, or train ticket or taxi receipt – I know people who have missed say, chicago-milwaukee flights where it’s not that far to drive. And again, one time you might get lucky. Travelers who do it repeatedly will almost certainly get caught or stuck at some point.

  • janice

    that might not get you caught. I’m talking about flying say to london from SF, when flying back london to SF and back to london, and then back again, and booking both tickets at the same time.

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